One of the bonuses of living in Brighton at this time of year is that we’re only a short bike ride away from Lewes, the bonfire capital of the world. As many as 3,000 people take part and they’ve had as a many as 80,000 spectators in the past.
What better way to join in the festivities than tag along with a mass bike ride from our local park, The Level, to Her Majesty’s Prison, Lewes, where the friendly guards allowed us to chain up our bikes?
With a couple of hundred people gathering on an assortment of bikes from state of the art road bikes to old jalopies to Bromptons, there was a festival atmosphere next to the skate park helped by a loud boom box attached to a tandem. A leisurely pace took us up to the University of Sussex campus where we picked up another crowd.
There’s something about taking part in a mass bike ride that’s intoxicating and I’m not just talking about the beer and wine drunk on the way. There’s an anarchic carnival spirit as this train of two wheelers dominates the streets and junctions and, for once, it’s the four-wheeled vehicles that have to give way.
Pedestrians stop, stare, cheer and car drivers beep their horns in, mostly, good natured support. There’s a sense of camaraderie among the riders as people share drinks, jokes and bonhomie.
This is an official, organized ride that has the support of the police and a whole lane of the A27 is blocked off just for bikes so it’s safe for the inexperienced (and their were quite a few). And with the entire local train service shut down from the afternoon and the town completely blocked to traffic, this is the only way to get there.
Boy, was it worth it? We watched various societies march past us in a phenomenal parade of dramatic fiery torches lighting up the medieval streets. Floats featuring Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump with rockets up their backsides, banners, barrels of burning embers, fire crackers.
The costumes are extraordinary in their attention to detail and variety: army uniform, land girls, bishops and priests, caged prisoners, American Indians. One of the eight bonfire societies had been drawing a bit of heat for blacking up as Zulus, but on the day some genuine warriors took part in full dress. No blacking up of faces and cultural appropriation then.
And it’s all done in the utmost seriousness. Each parade is flanked by torch bearers who give onlookers absolutely no concessions. If you’re in the way, prepare for a singeing!
The atmosphere is more akin to a Spanish festival as health and safety rules are flouted with abandon. There’s a great local sense of pride in their traditions - a festival that has been going on for centuries and still thriving. If you like fire and fiery spirit, this is where to come.
After the parade we had time to quench our thirst and restore our energies with a warming meal in a French brasserie. Then it was up the road for the bonfire and fireworks. A phenomenal display.
Riding back on the bike path we weaved in and out of pedestrians and reflected on a great night out. History, fire, fireworks, great food and drink, music and good cheer and all top and tailed by a bike ride. What better way to spend bonfire night!